Aphantasia: When the Mind’s Eye Is Blind
The recently discovered condition of aphantasia is the incapacity to form visual images. This is what implies not being able to imagine, in contrast with Blake’s tiger and 13 ways of imagining a blackbird.
We take hundreds of things for granted as part of the ‘human package’ with which we are born, but there is one specific thing that we need to revaluate: the mind’s eye, more commonly understood as ‘visual imagination.’ The emphasis on revaluating this capacity comes from a recent study in which it was confirmed that there exists a congenital condition called aphantasia in which that ‘mind’s eye’ is blind; meaning that the brain for some people (one in 50) is incapable of forming images.
The mere existence of the ‘mind’s eye’ has been recently confirmed by neuroscience. It is something that, in literature and philosophy, has been one more fact that is more than assumed for the understanding of ideas and concepts, but for neuroscience there was never a way of measuring it and therefore proving its existence. Now it has been revealed as a fact that there are people who simply cannot process visual information (a poem, a literary description or a conversation with graphical references). Those who suffer from aphantasia (and few of them actually know it) have great difficulty in describing their imagination or how to process visual information. For them, the most common experiences such as reading are experienced in a completely different way. A man with aphantasia reported not being able to “count sheep to get to sleep” for example, or recognize family faces. Can we imagine what it would be like to read Borges or Bradbury without being able to visualize their descriptions, or read poems whose verbal images are treated like paintings (“As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean”).
It is no surprise that it was Shakespeare who coined the phrase ‘the mind’s eye’ in Hamlet, one of the works that most require (both from the character and the reader) a capacity to visualize the events and their ghosts. “We call the moon the moon,” said John Donne, but now it turns out that there are those who call it thus without being able to see it by just closing their eyes. It would appear that aphantasia sharpens the memory of facts, and which serves as a solace to those who suffer from it. What we do not know is what those who don’t see with their mind’s eye dream about, what science fiction they read, and what they hear in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
As so often happens, finding out what one has and that another lacks it brings gratitude and perspective. The mind’s eye has brought us so many happy moments – as well as terrible ones, why not admit it – that it would not be excessive to over estimate it. Here is a poem by William Blake (who perhaps reimagined the imagination) and 13 ways of looking at a blackbird with the mind’s eye.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
When ancient rituals became religion
The emergence of religions irreversibly changed the history of humanity. It’s therefore essential to ask when and how did ancient peoples’ rituals become organized systems of thought, each with their
Seven ancient maps of the Americas
A map is not the territory. —Alfred Korzybski Maps are never merely maps. They’re human projections, metaphors in which we find both the geographical and the imaginary. The cases of ghost islands
An artist crochets a perfect skeleton and internal organs
Shanell Papp is a skilled textile and crochet artist. She spent four long months crocheting a life-size skeleton in wool. She then filled it in with the organs of the human body in an act as patient
A musical tribute to maps
A sequence of sounds, rhythms, melodies and silences: music is a most primitive art, the most essential, and the most powerful of all languages. Its capacity is not limited to the (hardly trivial)
The enchantment of 17th-century optics
The sense of sight is perhaps one the imagination’s most prolific masters. That is why humankind has been fascinated and bewitched by optics and their possibilities for centuries. Like the heart, the
Would you found your own micro-nation? These eccentric examples show how easy it can be
Founding a country is, in some ways, a simple task. It is enough to manifest its existence and the motives for creating a new political entity. At least that is what has been demonstrated by the
Wondrous crossings: the galaxy caves of New Zealand
Often, the most extraordinary phenomena are “jealous of themselves” ––and they happen where the human eye cannot enjoy them. However, they can be discovered, and when we do find them we experience a
Think you have strange reading habits? Wait until you've seen how Mcluhan reads
We often forget or neglect to think about the infinite circumstances that are condensed in the acts that we consider habitual. Using a fork to eat, for example, or walking down the street and being
The sky is calling us, a love letter to the cosmos (video)
We once dreamt of open sails and Open seas We once dreamt of new frontiers and New lands Are we still a brave people? We must not forget that the very stars we see nowadays are the same stars and
The sister you always wanted (but made into a crystal chandelier)
Lucas Maassen always wanted to have a sister. And after 36 years he finally procured one, except, as strange as it may sound, in the shape of a chandelier. Maassen, a Dutch designer, asked the